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Civic republicanism and active citizenship

By Bernard Crick - posted Tuesday, 22 May 2007

You could call this a “secular sermon”. I will preach on and around four texts. They illustrate that in today’s society that while, of course, you and I want to be good citizens, for others to be good citizens, and particularly for young people to be very good citizens, yet surveys, common observation and the content of the media all show that many or most of our fellow citizens are losing the desire, the will, the means and even the time to be active, participant citizens.

Some commentators now gravely discuss whether apathy is not a good indicator of contentment. Some politicians privately agree with them preferring to “let sleeping dogs lie”. But, as written in my secular Book of Proverbs, “Do or you will be done by”. A bare 51 per cent of my fellow Brits, even of my fellow Scots, were engaged enough to vote in the 2005 General Election: even to choose the best of a bad job. And sadly only four out of ten 18-25-year-olds voted.

Sir Alistair Graham, former UK Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, published a widely reported survey earlier this year showing that less than a quarter of us trust government ministers to tell the truth. Ministers are 15th in the pecking order of trust in the professions, hovering just below estate agents. “Lack of trust”, he said, “leads to public cynicism and disengagement in the political system … damaging to the very fabric of our democracy.”


That may have been a survey question too far for he has not been reappointed! Yet such disrespect for politicians is also widespread in Europe, the USA and Australia.

Too few of us are willing to stir our stumps to be active citizens and to work at the very least for a better society. We leave professional politicians to do that for us and hope they leave us alone to get on with, what is oddly called, the quiet and private life of competitive individualism.

The ten, 11 or 12-hour working day of the Victorian poor is now normal for all classes. Sometimes this is voluntary, yet more often we are caught up in a machine that appears to be out of control, but is in fact encouraged by government.

Yet there is a graver question of political neglect. We could now be facing an inability of either politicians or the general public to reach agreements fast and effectively enough to prevent great impending environmental disasters that threaten progress or even the stability of human civilisation.

So I offer no excuse for going back to basics, to remind us that from out of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds have evolved two great and civilising cultural inventions: natural science and the ideas and practices of free citizenship. Both have the capacity to prevent disasters, but neither can be taken for granted. Both need continual activity and now not just institutional repair but the rejuvenation of their spirit.

So the first text of this political philosopher’s sermon is from the Periclean oration as related by the historian Thucydides in Athens in the 5th century BC:


Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. … Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics - this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.

Now modern historians (whose vocation is to tell the truth) suggest that Pericles was in fact a populist demagogue, telling people what they wanted to hear but (like Mr Blair) sometimes falling a wee bit short of practicing what he preached. But consider the ideas Pericles invoked in his audience: it says a lot for their level of understanding and aspirations so long ago - what I call political literacy. His oratory was about more than maximising life chances for continual material advancement and spasmodic domestic bliss.

His argument is at the heart of what modern scholars have come to call “civic republicanism”. Civic republicanism signified both a value and a theory. The value was freedom itself specifically free public debate, among other things, as the very essence of free citizenship. The theory was that states are stronger when their actions are understood and actively supported by free citizens. Active citizenship is a duty, not simply a right, (a good if mild reflection of this view is the Australian belief in compulsory voting and a more worrying one in the right to bear arms in the US constitution of 1787).

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The article is a version of a recent public lecture at the Research Institute for Humanities and Social Science, University of Sydney on April 30, 2007.

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About the Author

Sir Bernard Crick is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory of Birkbeck College, London, author of In Defence of Politics and George Orwell: a Life, and he chaired the committee that brought citizenship learning into the school curriculum in England.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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